One of the ways that the men’s and women’s games differ the most is the serve. While previous posts on this site have shown that the speeds of men’s and women’s groundstrokes are actually fairly comparable, the men separate themselves by far on serve. On hard court, the average first serve for men is 115 mph and the average first serve for women is 99 mph.
This difference between the tours is well known. What is not as well understood is the secondhand effects that this difference on serve might have for the patterns observed in men’s and women’s service games. With modern tracking data, the sport can begin to delve into these effects.
In this post, I look at the preference of the forehand on the serve plus 1 shot (the server’s first shot in the rally). When a server has set himself or herself up well, we would expect that they would prefer to go for the more attacking shot on the forehand. Is that what we see?
Looking over 2014 and 2016 Australian Open matches, brought by the Game Insight Group, we find that men go to the forehand on their first serve 68% of the time relative to their backhand. This is strikingly different than female servers, who use the forehand on the serve plus 1 shot only 58% of the time. A preference but a much smaller one compared to the men. The gender differences are less notable on the second serve, suggesting that the dominance of the serve has a role in the forehand preference.
When we breakdown these comparisons by year for the three years of Australian Open data, we find that the men’s preference for the forehand was even more evident two years ago than this year. In 2014, men went to the forehand nearly 80% of the time on first serves compared to the backhand. Women servers had the opposite trend, using the forehand and backhand an equal amount of the time on the serve plus 1 in 2014.
Looking at the first rally shot on serve gives us some sense of the way the shot patterns and tactics could differ between the men’s and women’s tours. The trends we see on the serve plus 1 shot show that the women and men’s service patterns have become more similar over time. This means that we can expect the server’s first rally shot on the women’s tour to be more attacking and more predictable today than two years ago. Whether these trends will continue is something for time to tell.